Black and White Life

Mark Greif

  • Ralph Ellison: A Biography by Arnold Rampersad
    Knopf, 657 pp, $35.00, April 2007, ISBN 978 0 375 40827 4

In 1955, Ralph Ellison took part in a roundtable discussion on the subject ‘What’s Wrong with the American Novel?’ I came across the transcript recently and it opened my eyes. The first speakers twitter along, blaming readers for the novel’s decline. Then Ellison speaks up, and blames one party only: ‘There has been a failure of writers.’ He indicts himself, along with the novelists and publishers sitting beside him. The others try to continue with their original lines of thought, but end up answering him instead. They lack the wit to prove him wrong. You feel Ellison’s tremendous intelligence; a certain haughtiness; and even, maybe, an undercurrent of anger, to which so many observers testified: ‘a continuous effort . . . to keep a lid on the volcanic parts of his personality’, as the writer Jervis Anderson once put it. ‘Don’t do violence to what I am saying,’ he warns one of the participants, a bit violently.

A big problem with the biographical evaluation of Ellison – one of many problems – is that he was so much smarter and a better writer than most of the people around him. Yet he didn’t publish very much. His superiority, as many who knew him attest, didn’t sit lightly on him. Nor could he ever stop applying his high standards to himself. With great pains and at some personal risk (living off his wife, Fanny, and always uncertain of money and status), he had written just the one novel, Invisible Man, which managed to be better than any other novel of its time – and it was instantly, miraculously, recognised as such when it appeared in 1952. It made him the first African American to win the National Book Award. Then 39 years old, Ellison shot to a fame that seemed to increase year by year almost regardless of his written efforts. Ellison rose up the celebrity ladder, but had no more secure social basis than he had possessed in his years of poverty. He had nothing, really, that could make him comfortable with the superior things he could do and knew he could do, except to try to do them at a continuous, towering level. It led, as we learn in Arnold Rampersad’s new biography, to endless perfectionism in smaller and smaller publications (‘perfectionism that was clogging his arteries as a writer’, Rampersad says), and rounds of admired speeches given on ever larger stages (up to various arts advisory committees in Lyndon Johnson’s White House). But the thing that made Ellison’s life truly complicated after Invisible Man was his steady promise of a spectacular second novel, begun in the mid-1950s, which he worked on, though never finished, for forty years, all the way up to his death in 1994.

We already had views of Ellison’s professional eloquence from the polemics, interviews and memoirs included in his two books of non-fiction, Shadow and Act (1964) and Going to the Territory (1986). More recently, we learned something of his comic earthiness, thanks to the witty and profane letters he wrote to his good friend the novelist Albert Murray: their collected correspondence appeared in Trading Twelves (2000). We even got a piece of the unfinished second novel in the posthumous Juneteenth (1999). And now, in Rampersad’s long life of Ellison, we get details of all his respectable extra-literary activities – the people he knew, the places he went, down to each party, dinner and significant board meeting – since those entertainments and duties occupied a large part of his later life.

Part of the exquisite painfulness of reading this biography lies in its unwillingness to say: Ellison really was better than other people, and his novel really was uniquely the best, and yet it was not entirely shameful for him to become a public-minded person, and an establishment figure, and maybe even something other than a novelist, finally. Rampersad’s is an eminently ‘balanced’ biography – a cool portrait of a man who did many things admirably and nothing terribly wrong. We do learn that Ellison was not generous. Frequently the first black man to break a barrier, he did not try to carry others along with him. He may have disappointed himself, too, over the decades, as he continued to insist his second novel was nearly done. Rampersad provides exhaustive details of what is portrayed as a flaw in Ellison’s psychology: his compulsive institution-joining, entering the halls of white power as a distraction from writing. This is a portrait of a novelist too eager to belong. It could have asked instead whether the author of a novel as brilliant as Invisible Man might nevertheless be allowed to metamorphose into something else, a cultural and intellectual figure equally interesting in other ways. It’s unusual to encounter a life that seems so cleanly split into three separate acts. There is Ellison as struggler-up from poverty towards self-education and mastery. There is Ellison the writer, whose achievement collapses, for practical purposes, into the fate of his one major novel. And, finally, detailed by Rampersad really for the first time, there is Ellison the board member, teacher and cultural authority.

Writers about Ellison like to make lists of the amazing prodigies that flowed to him from his single novel. David Remnick, writing in the New Yorker in 1994, noted the ‘National Book Award, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et Lettres, a place in the American Academy of Arts and Letters and a position at New York University as Albert Schweitzer Professor of Humanities’. And Ellison’s novel took on a life of its own in the postwar American canon. In 1965 Invisible Man was chosen as the most distinguished novel since World War Two by a collection of ‘200 prominent authors, critics and editors’ for Book Week magazine. In 1978, when Wilson Quarterly canvassed professors of American literature on the most important novels published in the United States since World War Two, Ellison’s book was number one by a wide margin. In 1987, when Raymond Mazurek repeated the experiment, it remained the ‘most frequently taught’ postwar American novel in the English departments he surveyed.

Rampersad adds another list: a curriculum vitae of post-Invisible Man activities that reads like a philanthropist’s rather than a novelist’s obituary. Ellison joined the committee of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, as one of its early supporters; joined the board of the brand new Newport Jazz Festival; was a founding member of the National Council on the Arts, which created the National Endowment for the Humanities and National Endowment for the Arts; helped create American public educational television; served on the board of Colonial Williamsburg, the history attraction; lectured at the Library of Congress; advised on the creation of the experimental Hampshire College in Massachusetts; and much more – this is a heavily abridged list. These were achievements in an unexpected field of endeavour – public service and cultural trusteeship, a kind of respectable, quasi-official career for which aggressive and adventurous writers are not often praised in the United States. Ellison did not leave behind writings on the subject to defend himself; he seems simply to have done this service, not to have theorised it in the way he did so many other contradictory areas of black and white life.

You can also make an impressive list of events of struggle which marked Ellison before Invisible Man. Born in Oklahoma in 1913, just six years after the ‘Indian Territory’ became part of the United States as its 46th state, the young Ralph Waldo Ellison – named by his working-class father for the philosopher and poet – was only three when the terrible losses began. Ralph used to ride on the wagon his father drove to deliver ice; on one of these trips his father hefted a block of ice and a shard fatally pierced his stomach. The family’s wage earner and protector was gone. ‘Ahead lay years of shabby rented rooms, hand-me-down clothing, second-rate meals, sneers and slights from people better off, and a pinched, scuffling way of life,’ Rampersad writes. Ralph’s mother, Ida, worked as a janitor and maid to raise Ralph and his brother, Herbert. She died in Cincinnati, at 52, possibly from tuberculosis of the hip. Mentored by members of the Oklahoma City black elite who saw promise in the boy, Ralph first escaped his family in 1933, through his early musical talent, travelling to the all-black Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, where he got most of a college education while training to play the classical trumpet. But he achieved neither a degree nor a musical future. He headed instead to New York City for temporary work in the summer of 1936, and gradually made his way as an apprentice sculptor, then as a journalist and writer (and waiter, and factory worker, and building superintendent). Ellison and his brother scraped by once more in Dayton, Ohio, in the winter of 1937, waiting for their mother’s life insurance to pay out. But having established his base of operations in New York on his return from Ohio, Ralph Ellison never really left again. He lived off earnings from increasingly respectable writing jobs (including years with the Depression-era WPA Writers’ Project), but still often relied on the kindness of strangers: black bohemians and intellectuals, and Communist Party comrades both black and white. In the long pre-Invisible Man period he made an effort to sustain his artistic growth (and make a living) during years when many people recognised his promise even though he had little published writing to show.

We have the good fortune to have two biographies of Ellison which are useful in quite different ways. Five years ago, the young scholar Lawrence Jackson published Ralph Ellison: Emergence of Genius. It was in effect the first real biography, and not much noticed, though it was a compelling portrait. Jackson chose as his subject-matter only Ellison’s history up to the publication of Invisible Man, covering 1913 to 1953. (Hence the subtitle, ‘Emergence of Genius’.) This turned out to be an advantage: he didn’t have to deal with the writer as celebrity. Writing as a young man himself, viewing Ellison’s early years as part of the distant literary past, Jackson could afford some sympathetic exuberance and hopefulness on Ellison’s behalf.

At the time that Jackson’s book appeared, it was well known that the much more authoritative Rampersad (the author of books on Langston Hughes and Richard Wright) had been at work for several years on a definitive biography. Rampersad had signed an agreement with Fanny Ellison and her lawyers that gave him full access to the Ellison papers. Jackson had only partial access. When a young professor publishes a partial study in advance of someone more senior, there can often be some awkwardness, but in this case relations seem to have been friendly. Jackson, in his acknowledgments, mentioned that Rampersad was doing a biography to succeed his, and thanked him for his kindness and for sharing information. In his 2007 acknowledgments, Rampersad mentions ‘Lawrence Jackson, with whom I had enjoyed several pleasant discussions while he, too, was reading in the Ellison papers at the Library of Congress’. Yet because Rampersad does not give citations to Jackson’s biography in his book, even where their readings and interpretations disagree, one could make the mistake of thinking that Jackson’s valuable biography did not exist.

The most revelatory part of Jackson’s biography was his demonstration of how much of Ellison’s intellectual underpinning and development came from the black Communist Party. In his introduction to Shadow and Act, Ellison acknowledged his education: ‘my attraction (soon rejected) to Marxist political theory’. Jackson laid out, and Rampersad confirms in detail, how this education occurred within the circles of the New York Party. Ellison became a thinker, journalist and apprentice philosopher all as a Party loyalist, under the unique conditions of Harlem life. Ellison’s initial connection to black literary culture is still astonishing. Having left Tuskegee to try his luck in New York, unsure of his direction, he had only to come up from Alabama and spend one night at the YMCA on West 135th Street: he came downstairs into the lobby the next morning and ran into both Alain Locke and Langston Hughes.

Locke had essentially established the Harlem Renaissance as a force in 1925, with his anthology The New Negro. He happened to have met Ellison on a visit to Tuskegee earlier that year. Hughes, meanwhile, was a complete stranger to Ellison. But he took the young writer up and immediately began helping him. He led him to read Malraux and Thomas Mann, and also to study political economy. ‘I don’t wish to be ignorant of leftist literature any longer,’ Ellison wrote to Hughes, hungrily. This was the reader in Ellison, who had devoured the Tuskegee library while still studying music. ‘workers of the world must write!!!!’ he was insisting not much later to Richard Wright, an up-and-coming novelist with whom Hughes put him in touch. Wright had arrived in New York from Chicago – young, self-confident, aggressive and Communist – and showed Ellison a new world from his perch as a writer for the Communist Daily Worker and founder of a new journal, New Challenge. Later, Wright trained Ellison as a novelist in the most direct way possible – by showing him Native Son in the process of composition, a masterpiece which Ellison read ‘as it came out of the typewriter’.

Because Communists argued for African American freedom as no other major political party in America did, Ellison stuck with them even after Stalin had made his pact with Hitler. Ellison remained, in Rampersad’s words, ‘something of a Stalinist for years to come’ out of loyalty to his hopes for American blacks. When the Soviet-led Party eventually turned its back on African Americans who demanded civil rights and work in war industries, Ellison painfully drew away. In the imaginative transformations of Invisible Man, the Communists came to be represented by ‘the Brotherhood’, a political organisation that first gives the novel’s narrator hope, education and a job, then ultimately abandons Harlem to a race riot in order to exploit black people’s deaths as international propaganda.

Yet the most important legacy of Ellison’s Communism was the way in which his reading of Marx, Hegel and their latter-day interpreters helped him forge a dialectical reading of black and white history in America. By oppressing the ‘Negro’ and making him do the true work of building and founding the nation, America had wound up creating its highest culture out of black materials, in a debt it could suppress but never deny or undo. Blacks made America; they were entitled to it; and while anger and demands for justice were appropriate, separatism meant just handing over the keys to the house one had built. There was no part of white American culture that didn’t have a good part of blackness, and a black man or woman mustn’t walk away from that patrimony: he or she must claim it. (Ellison always preferred the term ‘Negro American’ to ‘black’ – to remind both whites and blacks of black Americans’ undeniable possession of the country they had largely made.)

Revisiting Oklahoma City, Ralph was pleased to note that his father, a former construction worker, had built many of the town’s most important buildings. In Invisible Man, the unnamed narrator discovers symbol after symbol of a whiteness dependent on blackness (government white paint for monuments that can only be saved with a tincture of black; the factory constructed by an old black engineer in the basement, the only man who knows how the whole enterprise works). Throughout Ellison’s later teaching life, as a professor at NYU and elsewhere, he made a point of instructing his students in those rare white American writers, such as Mark Twain, who had recognised that there could be no white American culture without black culture. (The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and Pudd’nhead Wilson were both on his syllabus.) Rampersad also tells us that ‘Ralph deliberately set a framed photograph of Mark Twain against a dark background’ – thereby, in Ellison’s words, ‘introducing what I hope is a not too intrusive symbolism of blackness’.

One of the major surprises of Jackson’s book was his description of the manuscripts of Invisible Man (they, along with the rest of Ellison’s voluminous papers, are kept at the Library of Congress). Jackson identified the existence of an original version of the novel, before it was edited by Albert Erskine at Random House, which contained (among other deleted elements) an entirely separate philosophical tract – called ‘Leroy’s Journal’ – which would have added one of those polemical tracts-within-a-novel that are so important in other literary-intellectual works of the era, such as George Orwell’s 1984. The tract was a long document that Invisible Man’s narrator found in the room of a fellow boarding-house resident, ‘a dead merchant marine named Leroy’. In Jackson’s account, citing the Library of Congress manuscripts and typescripts: ‘Leroy’s journal of philosophical guerrilla warfare was the Invisible Man’s prized possession . . . The decision to eliminate Leroy’s journal removed chunks of the novel that would have reflected the international scope of Ellison’s earliest intentions . . . trying to imagine a global shift in power, and a new ideal of justice.’ Rampersad doesn’t mention ‘Leroy’s Journal’; I don’t know why. Because his book does not really address Jackson’s, there’s no way to tell if this is because he thinks it isn’t really important or because other scholars have publications in preparation which he did not want to trespass on. Certainly the first thing that a reader would want out of the Ellison archives would be an ‘original’ version of Invisible Man, if it is what Jackson describes.

This omission is amplified in Rampersad when he arrives at the fundamental unexplained mystery of Ellison’s career: his unfinished second novel. Rampersad makes a quite brilliant psychological investigation into a question that has bothered people for many years: why wasn’t Ellison able to finish the second novel? What he doesn’t tell us is what’s in the thousands of pages of unpublished manuscripts of the book itself. He retains the personal but leaves out the literary dimension of the mystery. As a starting point, Rampersad examines the much retold story of the November 1967 fire at Ralph and Fanny’s country home, which was claimed to have destroyed a large amount of manuscript. Ellison lost all the work he had done the previous summer. ‘During the summer he had done little work on the book,’ Rampersad says flatly. Ellison possessed at least a decade’s worth of previous work, and he wrote in a post-fire letter that he ‘fortunately had a full copy of all that he had done prior to that summer.’ By the end of the following year, Ellison’s ‘story was changing’ and began to take on an increasing weight of tragic explanation: ‘To a reporter in Charlotte, North Carolina, Ralph mourned the loss of 365 pages, a neatly symbolic figure to which he would cling for many years.’ The fire, in other words, became an excuse.

More of a problem was Ellison’s perfectionism, and the difficulty of producing a ‘greater’ American novel when his first novel was so certifiably great (and had itself taken so long to write). Very possibly, Ellison had also damned himself by choosing a plot that lacked a clear chronology, and one that kept being usurped by fact. His plot – the attempted assassination of a racist politician, who had, in truth, been shaped by a hidden black past – stood nicely ahead of its time in 1954, when Ellison apparently started work, contemporary with the rebirth of the southern Civil Rights Movement. After Kennedy was assassinated, his story was just beginning to look like it had been ‘torn from the headlines’, and it would have to struggle to keep up with events, as the 1960s, and the Movement, became weirder and more violent. Ellison later claimed that ‘life was stepping in and imposing itself upon my fiction . . . I managed to keep going with it, I guess, because there was nothing else to do.’ Because the novel was conceived in flashbacks and memories and by circling around a few significant events, progress seemed to involve an increasingly artful structure, an endless deepening, that did not lend itself to an easy finish. Plus, the more pressing and more violent the ‘race problem’ in America became, Rampersad notes, the more in demand Ellison became as a speaker in public forums, for higher fees and honoraria and greater plaudits. Distractions from writing became more plentiful, more lucrative and more personally satisfying – accelerating the ‘board member’ period of his life.

Rampersad sees another problem, too: one that leads his book into a bit of a thicket. Ellison’s new book was intently ‘black’ in its sources and subject-matter, drawing on ‘Negro’ folk ways, church songs, rhymes, playing the dozens and elements of Ellison’s Oklahoma memories – as we know from the published portion, Juneteenth. Yet Ellison’s fixation on his own African American past prompts Rampersad to make a somewhat paradoxical negative judgment of Ellison’s black present; he presents it as a kind of punishment, in loss of writing ability, for Ellison’s failure to keep up with younger generations, or the meaning of his own rising income and status. ‘His inability to create an art that held a clean mirror up to “Negro” life as blacks actually led it, especially at or near his own social level, was disabling him as a writer. As a novelist, he had lost his way,’ Rampersad writes. ‘And he had done so in proportion to his distancing of himself from his fellow blacks.’ This echoes a private communication by Toni Morrison to Rampersad, which the biographer reproduces at length; Morrison’s judgment on Ellison builds up to a damning charge: ‘One contrasts the largeness of Invisible Man with its broad canvas and its wide range of effects, of insight, with the narrowness of his public encounters with blacks [in later life]. The contemporary world of late 20th-century African Americans was largely inaccessible, or simply uninteresting to him as a creator of fiction. For him, in essence, the eye, the gaze of the beholder remained white.’

It is hard for a white critic to know how to evaluate this. Rampersad’s book aligns the discomfort of its final judgment with Ellison’s satisfaction at mingling with rich whites at, say, Colonial Williamsburg, raising questions about the racial autonomy or authenticity of Ellison’s late writing. One of the most striking things about Invisible Man for a white reader is how much the white reader is self-consciously told by the book that his usual dominating gaze is being reversed. The book describes whites in terms of their grotesqueness, their smell, their unpleasant physiognomy, their untrustworthiness; white characters get bumped around like cartoon props in the way that blacks might be in a particularly careless ‘white’ book. I suppose this kind of reversed method does require knowledge of the ‘white gaze’. But much larger sections of that book take place in an entirely black community in Harlem, a full and closed world, without alien whites. And, importantly, in Juneteenth the same dual perspective seems equally present – in some written voices that rebuke and instruct a white ‘beholder’, it’s true, but also in others that seem to operate within a closed world of solely black references and lost cultural memory, in a real effort to retain an autonomous ‘Negro American’ past for contemporary purposes.

A complicating factor in any debate on Ellison’s weakening grip on fiction is that Juneteenth really does have power. This is why I wished for Rampersad, with full access, to tell us about the significant parts of the longer saga which we don’t have, those that weren’t published in Juneteenth. In its story of the possibly white Senator Sunraider and his black childhood as a kind of ventriloquist’s dummy for the revivalist preacher, Hickman, Ellison delved into the past but also seemed to gesture towards contradictions in the halls of white power which Rampersad tells us he got to know in his associations with Lyndon Johnson and others. Was this line extended further in the other two parts of the saga? And what was the obscene and ‘scatological’ other plot, to do with Cliofus, ‘the biggest kid in the first grade’? Rampersad tells us, tantalisingly, that Ellison read this section to uproarious laughter among an audience ‘of mostly young, mostly black fans’ at the Library of Congress as late as 1983. Was there anything there? Juneteenth is extremely hard to place, which surely has been a cause of its neglect. It is hard to place chronologically in the history of the American novel, depending on when we say Ellison ‘wrote’ it in the midst of all his revisions; hard to place as an excerpt of a larger fiction (its editor, John Callahan, said it constituted the ‘centre’ while Ellison did not live to complete ‘the wings’); and still, even after Rampersad’s detailing of his later years, hard to place among Ellison’s late changes of perspective.

The final page of Rampersad’s biography describes Ellison’s funeral. The novelist had told his wife he wanted to be buried in the Trinity Church cemetery, in their neighbourhood in New York, where John James Audubon and John Jacob Astor were also buried:

The plots were all taken, but the cemetery offered a vault in its ten-storey mausoleum . . . Pallbearers carried the coffin outside to a wall of burial vaults . . . a mechanical lift slowly raised two cemetery workers and the coffin high into the air, up to the mouth of the vault. The workers had a hard time manoeuvring the heavy coffin into place . . . Then, settling one end on the edge of Ralph’s crypt, the workers caught their breath before sliding its wooden bulk into the space in the wall.

I hope it will not seem insensitive to say that this description of Ellison’s last resting place reminded me uncomfortably of a drawer being replaced in a filing cabinet, to be sealed and not reopened. This was connected to the feeling with which I put down Rampersad’s biography: that it was an enormous and undeniable contribution, a true monument, but still incomplete, because it failed to communicate what Ellison held closest to his heart, both his own sense of his public service and the full extent (for good or ill) of what existed in his unseen work for those last forty years. Much of what we still want and need to know about Ellison waits in filing cabinets at the Library of Congress – even if we’re only to be assured that there’s truly nothing worthwhile there.